Mitt Romney and his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination on Saturday prepared to clash in a pair of debates just 12 hours apart, days before New Hampshire's bellwether primary.
The former Massachusetts governor aimed to fend off attacks from the more conservative contenders for the party's nod to take on President Barack Obama in the November elections and safeguard his frontrunner status.
Christian conservative former senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich have rained rhetorical blows on Romney ahead of this state's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday and South Carolina's January 21 vote.
Santorum warned Saturday that if the more moderate frontrunner got the nomination and beat Obama, "even if we win, we lose" because he won't bring "real change" to Washington.
"It's a joke for him (Romney) to call himself a conservative," Gingrich said Friday.
While they have taken pains not to turn on each other, second-place Ron Paul, a small-government champion and foe of overseas military interventions, has portrayed all of the other candidates as agents of a corrupt "status quo."
Long-shot candidates like former US envoy to China Jon Huntsman -- who has bet the future of his candidacy on a strong showing in this northeastern state -- and Texas Governor Rick Perry aimed for a redemptive break-out moment.
Romney has mostly let an independent group allied with him savage Gingrich and Santorum and kept his fire mostly trained on Obama, whom he accused on Saturday of crippling US national security with plans for a leaner US military in a time of belt-tightening in Washington.
"A military that's extraordinarily strong, superior to others, keeps others from doing dangerous things that would threaten us," he said at a rally, adding US forces must outstrip "anyone else in the world by a wide margin."
Romney was reacting to Obama's plans, announced at the Pentagon Thursday, to refit the US military to face down possible challenges from Iran or China with air and naval power, while virtually ruling out any future counter-insurgency campaigns such as those conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Romney was expected to play it safe in the debates, even as his rivals worked to dull his momentum here lest he build up a head of steam that could make him impossible to stop.
Debates -- more than a dozen of them -- have played an unusually large role in the fight to be the Republican standard-bearer against Obama in November, feeding surges and dealing crushing blows to the other candidates.
A new daily tracking poll by Suffolk University found Romney in the lead here with 39 percent support -- down from 43 percent three days ago -- Representative Ron Paul at 17 percent, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 10 percent.
Santorum was at nine percent, seemingly stalled after battling Romney to a near draw in Iowa, while Huntsman was also at nine percent.
Perry trailed at one percent, and 15 percent of the likely voters in the Republican primary surveyed were still undecided, leaving the race still fluid and making turnout critical.
Romney warned his supporters against complacency fed by his wide lead in New Hampshire, his shot at notching a second win after the Iowa caucus last week.
"Don't get too confident with those poll numbers," he said. "I need to make sure you guys get your friends to vote and you vote as well."
In South Carolina, a Time/CNN/ORC poll found Santorum has surged into second place behind Romney with a 15-point jump in one month to 19 percent -- still well behind the frontrunner's 37 percent support.
Obama's drive for a second term in the November 6 elections is weighed down by the sour US economy and unemployment that, by historical standards, is high -- though it slipped in December to 8.5 percent, the lowest since February 2009, the month after he took office.
In his weekly address on Saturday, the embattled Democratic president promised to do "whatever it takes" to maintain growth in the US economy as he announced a summit with business leaders dedicated to job creation at home.
The debates could reset the field: Romney's vast campaign war chest and high-profile endorsements have fed his image as the candidate to beat, but he faces stubborn doubts about his conservative credentials and has never been able to push his support from Republicans above 30 percent.
If core conservatives rally around Santorum -- or another candidate -- Romney could be in for a battle, though none of his current rivals can yet match his fundraising or extensive organization across key states.